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Police crack the case of Pikesville blasts

The Baltimore Sun

There are things that go bump in the night, and then there are things that shake your walls, rattle your brain and send you flying out of bed.

For more than two years, the thundering booms and the blinding flashes that lit up the sky over a Baltimore County parking lot at all hours of the night mystified and infuriated the bleary-eyed residents of a high-end condominium tower next door, who could not figure out what the devil was making such a racket, or why.

Was it a UFO, lost over Pikesville?

An exploding street lamp?

Some weird, rainless thunderstorm?

A very, very large gun?

When the police were called in last September, they were skeptical but tackled the problem as they would any mystery: They questioned people, set up surveillance cameras and pondered evidence. They clambered onto roofs to search - fruitlessly - for burn marks, and consulted experts in meteorology and physics.

Yesterday, they had their answer. The alleged mischief-maker, a police spokesman said, was a 59-year-old condo resident, Frederick Lee Mackler, who had been firing "some type of firework or pyrotechnic device" out of his fourth-floor window whenever the mood struck him.

Investigators who searched Mackler's home found heavy-duty pyrotechnics, illegal narcotics and firearms, said Cpl. Michael Hill of the Baltimore County Police Department.

Mackler was charged with possessing a concealed deadly weapon and fireworks without a permit, as well as reckless endangerment and drug violations. He appeared before a court commissioner yesterday and was ordered held in the Baltimore County Detention Center in lieu of $1 million bail.

Left unanswered was the question why, with so much illegal paraphernalia in his pad, a guy might call attention to himself by shooting rockets into the sky.

In any event, peace seemed to have returned to the area yesterday.

"Now I can sleep," said Elaine O'Mansky, a board member of the Stevenson Commons Condominiums, who recalled being awakened by the flashes and hearing the bangs "every once in a while" starting in 2005 and, since September, at least two dozen times.

Another resident of the condos, Barbara Bernstein, said the noise had awakened her "for years," sometimes once or twice a night.

"It sounded like a transformer blowing, or kids with fireworks," Bernstein, a five-year resident of the gated complex off Old Court Road, said yesterday as she left in her car. "No one knew where it was coming from."

As with almost anything, though, even strange booms can become part of the landscape. "After a while," Bernstein said, "you hear it and you say, 'There it goes again,' and you go back to sleep."

The Stevenson Commons complex, with 72 luxurious condominiums that can cost $600,000, might seem an unlikely place for such shenanigans. Its Web site says it offers "extraordinary proportions and exquisite attention to detail," with marble foyers and gourmet kitchens. A doorman guards each of the two main buildings, a bowl of peanut-butter cups close at hand for sweet-toothed tenants.

Beyond the gates and across the parking lot, at the Beth Tfiloh Dahan Community School, staff members who had been subjected to police questioning were eager for the whole affair to be over. Because the bangs and flashes occurred only at night, no one at the school was aware of them until police stepped in last fall.

"Everyone had a different theory," said Joan Feldman, the school's communications director, "but we were assured by the police that there was no reason to be concerned for the students' safety or security."

Her colleague, Norman Palmer, chief financial officer at Beth Tfiloh, said he had been atop the building's roof three or four times with police officers investigating the case. They looked at air-conditioning units and generators, but nothing seemed amiss. In the parking lot, lampposts were inspected.

"We could find no evidence of burning or scarring, and no broken windows," he said as he strolled the lot. "It was all clean as a whistle. So now it became a mystery as to what was causing this."

Palmer, a native of Auckland, New Zealand, who has been in the United States since 1974, said he had ordered the school's surveillance cameras to be trained on the area where it was thought the flashes occurred, although little came of those images.

The police, he said, installed cameras in two condos across the way, and Palmer was invited to view the footage. He described the images they took as showing "a very, very bright flash."

From the site of the flashes and the shadows they threw on the ground, investigators determined that they were sparking some 30 feet above the ground. That led, apparently, to the condo's upper windows.

"It's about to be solved, I think," Joseph Raphael, a maintenance worker at the condo complex since 2004, said yesterday morning as news of an arrest emerged. "Everyone's been complaining about all that noise."

Asked whether he had ever found debris on the ground that might indicate some sort of burning, Raphael said he had not.

"I'm assuming," he said, "that the debris was probably inside, where the noise came from."


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